Battle of the Dishes: Vegetarian Banh Mi Brawl


Banh mi has quite a rep — for being a gutbuster on the mean streets of Saigon and New York. Pickled carrot and radish slivers, cilantro, cucumber slices, pâté, grilled meat, and occasionally cheese burst out of a French baguette in this notorious sandwich. Chefs typically slather on mayo and butter before filling the bread. Heavy on fat, oil, and protein, the ever-popular hero breaks many rules of balanced dining, which probably explains why it’s damned delectable.

Even vegetarian varieties of this sub should come with a side of elastic-waist pants. But quantity, a given with banh mi, does not always mean quality, so we decided to see who makes a better meatless version: the Lower East Side’s Saigon Vietnamese Sandwich Deli or Park Slope’s Lotus Vietnamese Sandwiches.

Saigon Vietnamese Sandwich Deli, 369 Broome Street, 212-219-8341
At this deli, the $4.95 mock curry chicken sub practically explodes with slaw — so much that the sandwich actually needs to be contained by a rubber band. The faux poultry — a uniquely layered, spicy tofu with an eerily fleshy texture — doesn’t taste avian, but still satisfies. The light spice adds necessary warmth to the offering without being overly salty. Unlike the restaurant’s porcine and poultry options, this banh mi doesn’t come with a creamy dressing. The lack of sauce doesn’t make or break the pick, which suffers from literally bigger problems: Because the sandwich borders on overstuffed, you can’t really enjoy the cilantro or cuke spear, which slip out of the way when you try and take a bite.

Lotus Vietnamese Sandwiches, 229 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-399-2899
Microwave beeps directly following your order can mark the beginning of a bad meal, but Lotus’s $5.95 approach does not disappoint. As overly hefty a helping as the pick at Saigon, the ingredients here stay put, so that each mouthful displays a wide range of tastes and textures. Also, mayo and butter emphasize the cool freshness of the carrot-and-radish salad, the creaminess contrasting with the tart-but-sweet vinegar. The weirdness of the not-so-chicken winds up weakening the sandwich, though. Salty and rubbery, it has both the bouillon vibe of those little “chicken” chunks you encounter in a can of Campbell’s soup and the feel of Tofurky — it almost seems like an edible, lab-grade plastic that Monsanto would try to pass off as “the meat of the future.”

Next: The verdict! The Verdict: Bizarro bird aside, Lotus easily deserves the title of vegetarian banh mi master, and not just because the sandwich can be consumed without jaw-cracking mouth acrobatics. Deli’s approach seems overburdened, while Lotus’s effortless exorbitance just winds up making for a better sandwich.

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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 29, 2011

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